At the recent party to celebrate the tenth anniversary of Natural England (NE) its chairman Andrew Sells told us that NE had ‘integrity through independence’. But how does that square with his other assertion that ‘You won’t catch us opposing anything that government proposes’?
Two days later we had an example of NE’s lack of independence. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) has cut the funding for NE’s invaluable research into how people use the outdoors.
I wrote about the Monitor of Engagement with the Natural Environment (MENE) when I learnt about the threat to it in March. At that time Defra was consulting about its future, but none of us knew that this was a fake consultation and that Defra had already decided to make the cuts in order to let the contract for work to start in April 2016.
The survey used to involve interviews with about 800 respondents in their homes across England. It was undertaken every week and provided robust information about their visits to the outdoors, the type of destination, the duration of the visit, main activities and modes of transport, money spent, motivations and (importantly) barriers to visits.
Natural England had carried out this survey consistently for the last seven years, producing year-on-year figures which could be compared.
Now many of the questions have been removed and the sample sizes reduced to a third or a quarter; monthly surveys have changed to quarterly and weekly surveys to monthly. The figures can no longer provide trends.
People at the heart
This is all happening just as NE publishes its excellent conservation strategy, Conservation 21, which puts people at the heart of the environment and the health benefits of outdoor activity have never been more evident. NE needs to champion getting people outside but it won’t be able to measure its success without gathering robust data. Defra has made a decision which clearly puts NE at a disadvantage—but we don’t hear NE saying so, because it won’t oppose anything government proposes.
As for the fake consultation, Defra has responded: ‘The fact that we had to make this decision before the consultation period had ended was an issue that faced many of the surveys included in Defra’s consultation and, although this is at odds with general practice for official statistics, notice of this had been given to the UK Statistics Authority and overall support for this approach given.’
That’s no excuse—Defra must have known when it launched the consultation on 25 February that it had to let the contract before April. Why waste our time on a meaningless consultation?
The government apparently attaches little importance to evidence-gathering.
See this story on the grough website which gives more quotes from Defra and NE.